WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS
The thing about this film is, even reading a script of the final film won't take away your enjoyment and surprise at watching the final product.
It's notorious for being "trippy", surreallist, dada, odd, or any of a number of similar adjectives. However, this isn't such in a way that you're being treated to an empty barrage of intriguing, fantastic and nonsensical visuals. This movie has a lot to say, and packs it in heavily. And it often speaks to both hemispheres of the brain at once.
It's a 1973 Mexican art film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, ostenisbly and very very loosely based on "The Ascent of Mt. Carmel" by St. John of the Cross. But whereas St. John's poem is a work of Christian advice, this interweaves it with Christian, occult and political/social commentary. You can roughly divide the movie into three parts (not necessarily equal amounts of time, but three chapters to a story).
CHAPTER ONE - THE FOOL
The Thief, a man in a loincloth resembling Christ physically but the Tarot card "The Fool" in terms of concept, is lying in the Mexican hotlands. He is urinating on himself with a face covered in flies, pinned through the wrist to the ground with a lotus flower. He is rescued by a man with no legs and missing most of both arms (representing the Five of Swords, "defeat"), who finds him, unpins him and shoos away the flies. An insectlike swarm of small boys mock and then stone the Thief, who is suddenly and inexplicably seen tied to a low cross. He chases them away with a primal scream and gets down off the cross.
They enter civilization, and encounter three obese men dressed as Roman soldiers and a heavyset transvestite playing Mary, selling trinkets of religious figures. Meanwhile hordes of American and European tourists film everything in sight, and one of the women is delighted when she's raped by an actual gas masked soldier, her husband hands the camera to a passerby to make sure he's waving and smiling in the shot. The Roman Soldiers get the Thief drunk to the point of unconsciousness, and,while he's naked and lying on the ground in a crucified position, coat him in alginate, taking a copy of his body. As the transvestite, now seen as trying to be Mary, picks him up out of the alginate "coffin", it's deliberately made to look like a Pieta. When he awakes he sees himself surrounded by lifesize statues of himself, which he destroys in anger, chasing the transvestite and Soldiers out of the workshop with a makeshift whip.
Meanwhile, some deeply devout women leave a church. They are clearly prostitutes. An old man selects a child prostitute, puts his glass eye in her hand, closes her hand around his eye and begins sucking on her thumb and fingers. Another Prostitute is carrying a monkey. She runs in to the Thief, now carrying one of his statues, and the Five of Swords and is taken with him. The Thief carries on into a church. Putting his image as a gift on the altar, he awakens a blind, old priest literally in bed with a more traditional lifesize state of Jesus. The priest is irate and screams in nonsensical babble for the Thief to leave and take his image with him. The thief returns to the hotlands, eats the face off the statue (which has been subtly replaced by a Day of the Dead style cake in his likeness), and releases it into the air tied to armfuls of helium balloons, while the swarm of boys watch.
Entering civilisation again with the Five of Swords, he sees a tower (they pass tables covered in loaves and fishes) which has a crowd gathered around it, seeking small amounts of gold that fall from it. Stealing a crucifix-like dagger, he suddenly jumps on to a golden hook that's descended from the tower, and climbs the tower as the hook is retracted. Now alone, he walks through a rainbow hallway at the top, a tunnel that terminates in a white membrane. Puncturing it with the dagger, he enters the room where he meets the Alchemist, a strangely dressed man with a shaved forehead attended by a naked woman of color tattooed with occult symbols and Hebrew letters. Suspicious, he attacks with the dagger, but the Alchemist sidesteps all his attacks and eventually stops him with an internal T'ai Chi attack, tapping his body at certain meridians and stopping him cold.
The Alchemist asks the Thief if he wants gold. An enthusiastic nodding of the head leads to the Thief being locked in a glass ball, his own excrement in a glass bowl combining with his sweat. It eventually becomes a nugget of gold. The Thief now has clothes and gold, but when he sees himself in a stylized vaginal mirror, he shatters it.
Given the Tarot elements of staff, sword, cup and coin, he is then asked if, instead of gold, he wants to create souls. He is led to a room where tarot like cards spin around them both as they walk.
CHAPTER TWO - The Planets
We are introduced to another room where similar images to the ones made by the religious trinket sellers spin around the Thief and the Alchemist. The backstory of all the figures is given. They represent various planets (from an astrological/occult sense). The man representing Venus makes luxury goods, and impregnates the female staff of his father's factory, leading to legions of children. The Martian creates all manner of weaponry, including hip new modern weapons marketed to a rock and roll generation, such as a psychedlic shotgun. They also produce religious weapons including a menorah and a crucifix that fire bullets, and a gas that makes people enthusiastic to kill themselves on weapons of war. The assembly also includes a mutton chopped and combovered man who runs an art factory and has a thousand lovers a week and owns a robot which, when sufficiently stimulated with a giant rod, climaxes hard enough to produce literal offspring. Another produces propoganda as to which country the country is likely to kill in twenty years' time and indoctrinates children with a hatred of that country through war toys and comic books. Another works very little but produces reports for the government as to how many people the country's death squads need to kill. Neptune's representative is a soldier with a cult of personality that demands a testicle of each soldier he enlists, giving every recruit a mystical book on how to worship him. Pluto's representative is an architect who plays hide and seek with a gang of children dressed like mice.
The entire backstory of all the players explained (there are eight), the Alchemist calls them all to a meeting and explains that though they have money and power, they will all die. To escape this, he proposes discovering Enlightenment by going through an empriical process of self-purification by common denominator of religious thought, followed by them tracking down immortals at the top of a mountain to steal the secret of immortality. They are seated around a table representing an all seeing eye, with a hole filled with flames as the pupil.
They first burn all their money in the pupil. The Thief tries to steal some of it, but is noticed and mocked by all. They are then instructed to burn their own statue likenesses from the spinning room used to segue into the backstory of each. They then go about various rituals, from collecting pollen by running through fields to being manipulated by a brujo to dancing in Aztec ruins while ecstatic.
They shave their heads and don robes.
The Alchemist pronounces them ready.
CHAPTER THREE - The Island
Carrying staffs, they walk to the docks to take a boat to Lotus Island. The Prostitute, monkey in tow, tries to stop the Thief, and he almost succumbs to her loving advances. The peer pressure of the group persuades him to rebuff her and get on the boat. As they are sailing to the island they do some rituals to remove themselves of their last impediments. The Thief clearly needs the most help, and is told to throw the Five Of Swords overboard and to rid himself of him forever. The Thief initially cannot, claiming that the man cannot swim, but eventually hurls him to his death and mourns the loss.
Arriving at Lotus Island they are met by a guide, who steers them immediately to the Pantheon bar. This is a location in which most travellers stop their journey, seduced by the epic party therein. Also, diversions are offered. One volunteers that psychedelic drugs are the key to understanding the universe. A muscular luchador type demonstrates that he can literally walk through statues and has power to walk right through the mountain. When asked if he has ever ascended it, he claims there's no need to, as he has power to walk through it. The ten leave the bar in disgust to ascend the mountain, with the Guide and the assembled telling them that they're fools, if they'd stopped there they would have been worshipped and reverenced.
They climb the mountain. Neptune's fingers freeze, and the Alchemist states that it is because he has clung so desperately to his body. He is given a choice, give up his fingers or the quest. They amptutate his fingers, and his hand is whole. Meanwhile, we see that the Prostitute, monkey in tow, is following - first by boat, then by climbing the mountain. They then walk through a valley in which they confront their own fears and doubts, led by the Alchemist wearing a black hood over his face, with a tiger on a leash. For example, one of the women (a lesbian) sees a fist entering into her mouth in a phallic sort of way and surrenders to its penetration, also a cow is mounted violently by a bull.
They finally arrive at a round, Enneagram painted table surrounded by the Immortals. The Thief is told to abandon the quest, as he is more likely to find happiness with the Prostitute, who has now joined them, the monkey around her neck. As a gift, they are given the Alchemical tower. Meanwhile, it's discovered that the Immortals are simply statues in robes.
PLEASE STOP READING RIGHT HERE UNLESS YOU WANT THE MOVIE ENDING SPOILED.
The Alchemist suddenly commands the camera to back up, which reveals the Sound Guy, the crew and breaks the fourth wall violently. The Alchemist declares that all of this, everything about it, is also illusion, is Maya, and needs to be destroyed. He then leads the actors up the side of the mountain, further pursuing their quest.
To say this is an ambitious work is an understatement, and to properly enjoy it one must read up on 1960s social concerns and mores, liberation theology, South American and Mexican politics, the Tarot, the occult, and mystical Christianity.
The filmmaker put a lot of work and creativity into this, even going so far as to take hallucinogenic drugs and leading his actors to not only study the source material and spend some time intensively training with religious, occult and ecstatic experts.
But it's interesting that even with the meticulous planning and the careful scripting, some of the most intriguing parts of the film were written by the events outside the filming. In two serious cases of life writes the plot, the actor playing The Thief spent too much of his off-camera time taking drugs, leading to him not being able to or ruining certain planned scenes (which they had to improvise around), and the ending, which was supposed to be Heaven (represented by the interior of a Mexican restaurant) in which a woman gives birth on camera - was scrapped when the pregnant woman in question decided that her giving birth probably wasn't the subject of an art project, and backed out of the film.
A subplot involving the spoiled barely teenaged son of one of the Planets taking money from the father, ostensibly to pay for the nude, similarly aged girl draped sensually over his back was scrapped for fear of accusations of pedophilia and child abuse.
Even though it's showing its age in some respects (the costume design is clearly from the Swinging Sixties), and it's absolutely certain not everybody will understand all the references, it's nevertheless an ultimately, and paradoxically, Christian message. Even though there's elderly women urinating, an artist inserting his finger into the anus of some random buttocks sticking out of a box, scores of students murdered with psychedelic color blood sprays and escaping souls represented by doves. Nudes of all ages, occult references, blasphemous imagery - the ultimate message of the film is that even the relentless pursuit of a monastic pursuit of the refinement of the Higher Self is selfish - not as good as simply accepting the love around you, living out the life span you were given, and doing so doing the work you were meant to do and making a difference with the secular world around you.
It is now available, fully restored, on DVD, and is certainly worth watching repeatedly. If nothing else the soundtrack, including out-there musicians like Don Cherry, is worth it just for the historical aspect alone.